We’ve been noticing sour ales and hard ciders making their way back onto enlightened wine and beer lists in California, thanks in part to the artisanal tinkering of handcrafters looking for something new and different. What goes around comes around, and in the case of hard cider, the new trend is indeed an ancient one. The French and English were cider aficionados since before the Norman Conquest, preferring the reliable flavor and cleanliness of fermented apple and pear juice to the questionable pedigree of drinking water.
In the late 18th century New World, a restless grower euphemistically dubbed “Johnny Appleseed” broadcast apple seeds as he worked his way west. But it wasn’t so that we could have big, fat, delicious apples to go with our lunches. It was for harvesting and fermenting into something with a few decibels of alcohol. So prevalent was hard cider as a mildly alcoholic beverage in the U.S. that during Prohibition the G-men actually ripped up apple orchards in an effort to prevent zealous lawbreakers from making up a bit of hard cider.
Paul Cocking of Gabriella Cafe serves Square Mile cider from Oregon. The flavor is crisp, dry and delicious. “It comes in 12-ounce bottles, which no one around here seems to be making,” Cocking notes. “People asking for it seem to just have developed a taste for it. It’s drier than beer and has less alcohol than wine.”
Sour ales are another handcrafted item adding sex appeal to libation menus. I first tasted one of these distinctive creations at Assembly a few months ago, thanks to Zane Griffin, Assembly’s beverage manager.
“Sour ales have been very popular in the recent craft beer movement,” says Griffin. “Using wild fermentation methods and pitching interesting yeast and bacterial strains coupled with breweries’ house ‘bugs,’ brewers are able to yield dynamic and interesting flavor profiles.” Griffin describes the sour results as offering notes of “barnyard funk, apricots, minerality, lemon, and slatey earthiness.”
Michael Enos and Julie Rienhardt at Watsonville’s Elkhorn Slough Brewing Co. specialize in handmade wild and sour ales. They write: “We think the reason why these ales are becoming more popular is a byproduct of the general food and beverage revolution. People are recognizing more that fermented foods are good for you, so more people are experimenting with fermentation in general.”
The duo made their first batch of spontaneously fermented hard cider by accident. “The resulting cider was so good, we decided to try using the wild yeast to make beer. We began experimenting and ended up making some very good award-winning barrel-aged beer,” write Enos and Rienhardt. The brewery’s award-winning June Bug is an example. “We produce this annually, after first making our base beer with our harvested wild yeast from the apples in the late fall, and then adding olallieberries from our garden in the summer to re-ferment the beer in the barrel.”
Wild beer is different from sour beer. If the yeast is harvested from the natural environment, the beer can be called wild. “It produces some tartness and funkiness, but those characteristics are created naturally,” the Elkhorn brewers explain. Sour beer can use laboratory-produced yeast and bacteria. Griffin believes much of the allure of these new ales results from how beautifully “they complement the renaissance of artisan from-scratch food.”